There has been a flurry of posts about Google’s acquisition of Sparrow. As I was reading the posts, I felt that a couple of important points were missed (or at least didn’t jump out at me). Let’s start with the discussion of whether users have a right to be upset. No matter what view you ultimately take here it seems worth remembering that the dollars spent on the software are not the only costs that were incurred by users.
First there is the cost of time. Let’s say that over the course of a few days after you pay for Sparrow you spend a total of an hour setting up your email accounts and getting up to speed on the product. If you value your time at $50 per hour, then your total cost of Sparrow has just gone up 5x on Mac and 15x on iOS. And I think many of the early adopters of Sparrow value their time at more than that. Even if you don’t put a strict dollar value on it people generally hate feeling like they wasted time.
Second, the emotional cost: there is a strong emotional tie to key tools. There are epic pieces on the Internet about text editors. Just search for “love vim”! Email is for most people what editors are for developers. So to fall in love with a new tool only to then find out that it will be “unsupported” which essentially means outdated soon and bugs not fixed (no piece of software the size of Sparrow is without bugs) can be a bit crushing. I am sure people’s reaction would be quite different if this was some disk optimizer utility that you use once a year.
There was also at least one post arguing that the acquisition somehow calls in questions whether you can succeed with paid software. I don’t think it questions that at all. It only proves that whatever Google offered was more attractive than the alternatives the team considered. The Sparrow team chose to go after a particularly hard problem and so we should read especially little into their choice. In case you are not convinced that a paid email client is hard, please consider the following:
First, you are competing with free offerings which are heavily subsidized by big vendors with huge resources and are seen as integral by those vendors to their platform strategies. So the bar for being better is actually reasonably high (I know a lot of people hate their email but that doesn’t mean improving it is easy). Add to that the cost of time argument from about and you will see that getting people to try a new email client is hard.
Second, email itself is hard. Anyone who has ever dealt with the intricacies of the standards involved knows that there are tons of weird edge cases and odd implementations out there. Getting an email product to work well at all times and with all accounts is hard even if you are leveraging existing open source components.
Third, going after a general purpose application for a broad audience is hard. How do you build differentiated value? How do people find that they want to use Sparrow as opposed to what they already have? All of this get easier when you make a more niche application where figuring out what drives value and who might be willing to pay for that value is easier to identify.
Fourth, marketing diffuse benefits such as elegance and simplicity is difficult. Here I think the Sparrow could have maybe tried to be more aggressive. Some Sparrow users I know claimed that Sparrow saved them an hour or more of time per week. If that’s indeed the case then more hard charging marketing copy and a much higher price point might have both been justified (this is cost of time again from the very first point).
So all in all I think that drawing conclusions about the viability of the paid model in general from the Sparrow acquisition is vastly overstating the case. And as my last point suggests, it may even be possible to make this work for email — it’s just a particularly hard problem.